After a week of unusual nights out– featuring trampolining, Balkan and Israeli folk dancing and ukulele to name three – tonight had the potential to be the weirdest yet.
The Box of Frogs theatre impro workshop is held in Moseley, Birmingham's arty, crusty and eclectic postcode, every Tuesday evening. For just a fiver, you can revisit your inner child for two hours of pretend, singing, mirroring, general making things up on the spot and playing games called things like 'Zip Zap Boing'.
Now let me just say, I am not the dramatic type and hate being put on the spot. I used to be very shy and hid behind my mother's skirts when people came to the house. I also hated acting at school and found it false, stressful and humiliating. As an adult I can hardly breathe when speaking in public. Oh and being a ginger, I blush to the roots.
And yet… I admire people who can perform naturally, who can wing it at a talk or who can give a confident or charming presentation. And there is something (megalomania?) within me that drives me towards taking the lead. I also seem to have an occasional exhibitionist streak and have sung/played on stage (for Gordon Brown) in what now seems like another lifetime.
Finding an improv session in Birmingham was part of my SXSW Interactive follow-up, after feeling particularly inspired by the fun, games and confidence-building at a session called Improv Lessons for Freelancers.
Box of Frogs featured seven players and was fascinating, supportive and not at all embarrassing. This was unexpected considering that tonight I have had to perform a contemporary dance about dog walking, sing in fluent nonsense and play a bank manager so obsessed with a potential loan customer's spectacles that she just had to touch them and get them for herself.
Because the great thing about improv is that nothing you do is wrong! For once, the brain can take a day off from fretting about getting it right.
Which was a particularly good thing – because I spent the first 10 minutes in the church next door doing vocal exercises with the local choir.
* …some content strategy contacts
This was one of my main reasons for attending. Content strategy was a SXSW Interactive content buzzphrase this year. The content panels were packed out and the queen of content strategy Kristina Halvorson gave a talk that felt more like a keynote presentation. Content is messy and soaks up resource so it makes sense to apply some thinking to it ahead of where it usually gets chiselled in –ie, right at the end. Anyhoo, there was an impromptu content strategy meetup, in a bar natch, to meet the early adopters. I now have at least two business cards in my biz-card-takehome-pile from people who I feel I can contact for help and advice. Also, Ruth Ward of Rewired PR and I are thinking of setting up a content strategy meetup in Birmingham for those looking to make the leap from web writing/editing, online PR/marketing, UX or IA into this growing field – as you can see on the link, all CS meetups are currently in the US. It's an opportunity to bring Bham companies ahead of the curve.
* …a spontaneous urge to take up improv Improv lessons for freelancers has inspired me to sign up for improv, which is not only a bit of fun, but also a confidence-booster when you're being put on the spot in client-vendor relationships. Having been put on the spot in this session myself by some smart-arse on the front row, I realise I could do with learning to think and process on my feet a bit faster as well as learning the Whose Line Is it Anyway? art of the winning instant comeback.
* …the skill of shuffleboard networking
The great thing about SXSW is that it is more a festival than a conference. You can meet old friends and find new ones ridiculously easily. This year, one of the leading meet spots was at Buffalo Billiards over a game of table shuffleboard (see above). I think I had beginner's luck with it and opened up some a can of Brummie whoop-ass on various delegates after randomly pairing up with the CEO/founder of TripLittle.
* …some potential work leads
It's too early to say but I have a meeting lined up in April to do some blogging. And with a bit of luck, it might even lead to some international working. Watch this space. I also hope that all the chat about how digitally connected and determined we are in the West Midlands has fallen on fertile ground. With 25 of us out there shouting about the region, hopefully there will be some positive outcomes from the trip.
* …a haze of insight and context
It's too early to assimilate all the things I heard and learnt over the five days at SXSW but it will feed into all the work that I do over the next 12 months. It feels kind of like doing an A'Level in a weekend and, at the moment, I'm post-exam with a blank mind, a whole lotta jet lag and the feeling of never wanting to work again.
Fringe events outside of the main SXSW programme are occurring all the time. I just found out today for example that there were THREE Twitter parties (not just the official one). But you can often only come across these serendipitously through the people you meet at South-by. One off-programme invite I got was courtesy of Stephanie Frost, a rather lovely marketing lady from Atlanta and co-author of a new book called Marketing Unmasked. Being from Atlanta, she had access to SExSW (which spells Sex SW, I know), a party put on for those hailing from the south-eastern states. Stephanie's invite took me to the Frost Bank Tower, the second highest building in Austin, for some rather pretty views, chats and a glass of the good stuff up in the 33rd floor penthouse suite.
* …the ABC of douchey panels
Sometimes you just get a panel that doesn't live up to its blurb. Irritating if you picked that one out of three others that you also wanted to see. It happens; there are hundreds of panels at SXSW. Here are your options:
A. Revel in the backchannel snarking.
B. Leave in search of an alternative or take a sunshine break.
C. Use the time to catch up on your Twitter, emails, feeds, SXSW blog, uploading your SXSW pictures and video, filling in job applications, etc.
* …about the digital agency workflow
Well, one agency's workflow in particular. I kind of felt sorry for Archetype, the Interactive Agency Workflow panel guys. They had a packed room but killed it by using themselves as the only example. Result? The room emptied by degrees. They also got a slating on the Twitter backchannel. However, being a web writer/editor, I'm often at the end of the digital agency production line and don't get to see the overall process so this was quite interesting to me. It was good to see the wireframes, hear how not to burn out your staff and some ways of dealing with the post-delivery jubilance that is then crushed by the client hating it.
* …that being called a bitch is good news
I don't >think< I've been called a bitch, but according to @Cinnachick on the #sxswbitch panel, I'm missing out, because this situation is full of WIN. 'When they call you a bitch, it means you've won. Why? Because they aren't smart enough to continue the conversation,' she says. Fair point. She loaded this up with a whole list of projects set up by women who haven taken on the establishment in some way to create their projects. Here's the blog post/slides.
* …that heartbreak and wonderful things often occur simultaneously The Fray Café is a SXSW regular. It's an event where people stand up on stage and tell stories, with only one proviso: IT MUST BE TRUE. Having had a couple of crap years here and there myself, several stories really resonated. One in particular from Baratunde Thurston, Web & Politics editor at The Onion, was both amusing and tragic at the same time. The audience was sworn to secrecy due to the personal nature of the story, but I was reminded of 1996 – the year I lost my Dad, uncle and grandmother, but also found one of my favourite friends and went off to explore the world. HsAPaPdY.
* …that the average blog is read by 6 people
That stat from Danah Boyd's keynote. So think about that the next time you feel pressure or guilt to produce a blog post for your audience but should really do other, more important things instead.
* …to JFDI!
Am I a video blogger? No. But Social Wayne impressed on me to 'JUST DO IT' in his Becoming a Real-Time Video Blogger in 2010 talk and, you know what, I think I will. After all, YouTube is the No2 search engine, the 4th most visited website, has over 20 hours of video uploaded every minute and is watched for 8.3 hours every month by the average viewer. I also remember randomly overhearing in the corridors: 'There are just too many words, man!' So, my takeaway: more video. (And here I am in real-time trying to video blog after 22 hours no sleep on the train to Austin…)
*…two new words Propinquity is the coincidence of being near – in 'physical proximity, a kinship between people, or via a similarity in nature between things'. This was brought up by Peter Kim in the Social Business Design panel. Propinquity is what business has to fight/extend/engage with in order to get people to venture beyond their near friends/family. Twelpforce was an example quoted as helping creating this engagement and getting close to consumers by offering a Twitter help squad to answer questions beyond the local store experience. Slacktivist was another word from the Little NGO That Could panel but for some reason this type of portmanteau word reminds me too much of chillaxin'. Bleugh.
* …that content strategists are like Wall•E
We go around cleaning up the Armageddon-like mess of crap that has been thrown up on the Web often without a thought by brands, marketers and others. And when we find something beautiful amongst the endless crap we get all excited and want to store it and share it. The Wall•E analogy was used by Kristina Halvorson to bookend her Content Strategy FTW talk.
*…about porn startups
I think #futuresmut was one of the catchier hashtags of SXSW this year and the potential for a smutty backchannel loomed large, especially when an attendee arrived wearing an above-the-knee kilt. While the backchannel (surely a smutword in itself) had a humour fail, the panel did with get right down-to-business (#smutgalore) with pointers for the wannabe pr0n kings and queens in the Hilton Ballroom. Conrad Hilton must be turning in his grave. Here's what the man in the kilt doodled during the panel by the way – check out the hairy knees.
* …that journalism is getting interesting again
The panel on combining news with context (how revolutionary!), or context with attached news, had some great speakers. What seems clear is that big organisations ar failing to do this well because they are constrained by their traditional roles – which leaves opportunities for the agile. The other interesting thing was The Newspaper Club – a 4IP-funded tool called ARTHR for producing your own newspaper on those 'magnificent bits of infrastructure that are just lying around' – printing presses . I heard more than one classic Austin 'awesome' when people circulated the 'limited edition' newspaper the group had printed at 7am that morning on the Austin Statesman presses. As the endline of the presentation went: 'We have broken your business, now we want your machines.' How funny that the internet is accelerating content in the form of old-school newspapers, and how great that these newspapers are made by the readers themselves using traditional publishing infrastructure.
* …that we are networking as Rome burns
Sci-fi author Bruce Sterling traditionally does the final remarks of SXSW and this year his dour look into the future added a fat dollop of real-world context to all us little digitalists running from panel to panel, searching for answers to today's business conundrums. But in essence we must face the digital demonetisation of our new world – many business models are broken and the numbers involved in their replacements are not large enough to sustain us. Oh and we will be hated by future generations for what we are building or throwing away now – just to warn you.
I took 16 pages of notes at SXSW Interactive festival this year. It's hard to get your head around all the difference panels, talks, core conversations and notes-to-self but I think this Wordle shows something of what I was getting from and attending at South By in 2010.
It's particularly interesting that the top three words are: 'Content people want'. I guess that's the key and secret to online enterprises.
There is more to blog tomorrow ahead of the long plane ride home. PS. You can click on the link to see a larger version of the Wordle.
A little SXSW diary catchup… It's the halfway point of SXSW Interactive and I'm still gearing up into this festival to end all web festivals.
Here's my personal/business mission statement for this year's event – slightly different from last year as I'm being part-funded to attend by the UK's Digital Mission along with about 25 others from the West Midlands. See the Heart of Austin site for more on who we are – but with a trade show stall the size of the UK's stand and no other UK region represented here, you can see how much Birmingham UK values the digital dollar and I think is also representative of what a digitally connected hub the Midlands is.
SXSW Diary: from Miami to Austin
Arrived into Austin on Thursday at 9.30 am after 22 hours of train travelling from New Orleans and 25 hours of no sleep – you can see the state of me in this 'Let's look at the brewery' video as I fail spectacularly to be a tourist guide to San Antonio from the train.
There will also be content going up on my travel blog, Tourist vs Traveller, about my Amtrak train and Greyhound road trip from Miami to Austin via Atlanta, Birmingham and New Orleans. But mainly about the 24 hours this Brummie spent in our namesake city, Birmingham Alabama.
I'm also adding to my Flickr picture set as the days go by: SXSW2010 and USA2010 – if you want to see the trip that led up to the festival and see what Birmingham, Alabama looks like.
Thursday/Friday saw badge pickup – where I learnt that it pays to be late. Never to turn up at the listed time but at least two hours later if you want to avoid the queues.
First panels: mobile UX and improv lessons
My kick-off panel was the UX of Mobile, which is a whole new world of design, dev and content and one that may lead website design in future rather than the other way round. In future, mobile design will be a key driver in all digital design, was the expert view, because shrinking down website to fit on a small screen (surprise, surprise) doesn't work.
I spent most of this panel, however trying to track down a certain Bharath Kumar who had left his memory stick on a corridor floor by a power socket. It was like trying to solve a mystery. You'd think everyone at SXSW would be easily findable on the Web, but I tell you, Bharath Kumar is a VERY common name. In the end we found his mobile number somewhere on the stick and texted him. And he lived happily ever after.
The afternoon's best session was Improv Lessons for Freelancers – and has inspired me to take up improv if there are any such sessions in Birmingham UK… This is not just about how to be charming to your clients but how to, for example, say yes positively to their 'Make it pop' requests without actually committing yourself to a bad design decision – or extra unpaid work.
How to network at SXSW
Over a margarita, of course. Thursday evening was the SXSW West Midlands networking dinner at the Iron Cactus, the social and business bonding oiled by the drink of SXSW: the margarita. Parties are another major feature of SXSW.
I'm a relative new arrival into Birmingham's digital scene – see September 2009's Why I am moving back to Brum – so it was good to cement a few friendships and to let people know that I'm a web writer, web editor and content strategy person who can plug into the commercial scene in Birmingham and create content for clients/agencies that need a professional web writer/editor.
The serendipitous Glastonbury effect
Saturday was a frustrating day. Every panel I chose to attend had a mile-long queue to get in.
But this is where SXSW reminds me of Glastonbury in that it's all good. If you can't get to something you want to see because it's over the other side of the site and four floors up, or it's oversubscribed, then there are some great little gigs right next to you. It may not be your subject but you can still take away something from it.
Critical Tits, for example, was an interesting one – a conversation where the Burning Man festival was being called to account for its new and tight restrictions on photography, where they see anything shared to a wider audience as 'commercial use'. I think the move has stemmed from people snapping naked female artists and those shots appearing on porn sites. But the clamp down seems excessive and controlling being applied across the board as it is. I may be wrong on this, I didn't get the full lowdown as the session was interrupted by an emergency fire alarm and evacuation of the whole Austin Convention Center.
I also attended Why Keep Blogging by some of the original superstars of blogging (SXSW is great for attracting big names) and How to Create a Viral Video – which was (possibly) more fun than useful but made by the attendance of Damian Kulash of OK Go viral video fame.
How to create a viral video
I think OK Go's music has become secondary to their videos, but, OMG, This Too Shall Pass is a damn fine video. It starts with domino toppling and ends in the most astonishing series of pop music Mousetrap that you will ever, ever see. Ever.
An incredible idea if you can afford the 60 engineers and six months it took to make. Although the point was made that the record company couldn't afford it but commercial sponsors State Farm Insurance could – and got very positive comments from the millions who have seen the video. And the only product plug was their logo on the side of a truck that sets the first domino falling, plus a credit at the end.
Now that's what I call marketing 2010!
Content Strategy FTW!
Kristina Halvorson's Content Strategy FTW was the highlight of my day. I received a major info download that is currently swirling around my head so will post another time on that.
Over the next year, I'm looking at employing content strategy for We Are Fierce in Birmingham and helping them to bring their festival, consultancy and training arms all under one unified web presence over the next year.
I'm not sure what will result, but it's going to be interesting as few organisations pay this much attention to the haphazard and messy world of content. We shall bring order! And the basic premise is 'Less is More'.
Will also be attending CS Forum 2010 – an entire conference devoted to the growing discipline of Content Strategy.
Daily Strangeness from Dorkbot to Kick-Ass
Finally, last night was fun. After a brief stop-off at the Dorkbot tent to twiddle some knobs (here I am with a BleepLabs Thingamagoop), we were hijacked on Sixth Street into a cab for an interview for (I think) DVD bonus features for a new superhero flick. SXSW Film Festival saw the premiere of Kick-Ass – a superhero movie based on a comic book of the same name – we signed our Hollywood movie waiver and proceeded to be drilled about what type of superhero skills we would have and who's 'ass' would be like to kick and why, as we were driven around the streets of Austin in a cab emblazoned with Kick-Ass all over it.
It was one of those mad, interstitial Glastonbury moments that is tertiary to the main event but one of the things you remember most. After all, the slogan and ethos of this city and this festival is 'Keep Austin weird'.
Off now to enjoy Tuttle at SXSWi, an inaugural Content Srategy meetup, Fray Café tonight and see what else Sunday brings. It's going to be fun.
Blurb: Three days of sessions covering PPC management, keyword research, SEO, social media, linking building, duplicate content, video optimisation, usability and more!
Me: Blogging (right here) points of interests – particularly interested in conversion rate optimisation stuff for websites and emails (esp after being RAC ezine's online editor last year), information architecture, business tweeting and happy hour cocktails. So I'll try to throw up (!) some posts on these from the event.
Blurb: Five days of compelling presentations from the brightest minds in emerging technology, scores of exciting networking events hosted by industry leaders and an unbeatable line up of special programs showcasing the best new websites, video games and startup ideas the community has to offer. Join us March 2010 for the panels, the parties, the 13th Annual Web Awards, the ScreenBurn at SXSW Arcade, the Film and Interactive Trade Show and Exhibition, Microsoft BizSpark Accelerator at SXSW and, of course, the inspirational experience that only SXSW can deliver.
Me: There for the margaritas, parties and crazy games naturally, but also to meet interesting contacts, learn best practice on content-related stuff and bring the skills back home. Also looking at finding some connections doing interesting stuff in the hotel/conference/travel line of work maybe. And generally promoting the digital side of the West Midlands region, which is part funding me to go on their digital mission. Should also be blogging a bit from the event as per last year. And hoping to hook up with the Tuttle 2 Texas crew somewhere around New Orleans for the last leg of their trip – more about what that's about on the Tuttle2Texas Posterous. Oh and finally hoping to work out what distributed storytelling is all about from last year's Microsoft BizSpark Accelerator MC and tech journo prof, Brad King.
Blurb: Where business analysis meets user experience and content development – two exciting days of workshops, presentations and discussions led by leading experts and practitioners from the emerging field of Content Strategy. Whether you are already a content strategist, or looking to break into the field, this exceptional event will put you in touch with inspiring people and new ideas.
Me: Content strategy is what I'm most interested in right now and this is the only major conference featuring all the big names that doesn't involve flying to the US. Looking to pick up skills in this area as I've just started working with the wonderful WTF! Fierce Festival to help get their content strategy ducks in a row in 2010. Also hope to finally meet Kristina Halvorson, content strategy queen. And will also be bringing an artist along to document Paris in an experiment of travel journalism for Tourist Vs Traveller – more of that in a future post.
That's me sorted for the year, I think. Unless anyone knows of any interesting travel journalist conferences…
Spent all day in Microsoft BizSpark Accelerator where the cream of the internet start-ups compete via 2-min elevator pitches to be crowned winner in their category. Kind of a Crufts for online business.
Interviewed Weardrobe founder SuzanneZ – whose fashion social network community was predicted to be the NBT (next big thing) by Guy Kawasaki. She's 24, beautiful and got out of banking just ahead of the financial meltdown to put her and partner's Facebook for fashionistas out there. One to watch.
The male panel, which included Robert Scoble didn't get it initially, but when they did, the sense of excitement about the project was obvious, as they joked: 'How do we invest?'
Undoubtedly the best twitter hashtag of SXSWi, #kebab quickly became the WTF session of the whole interactive festival.
Set up by School of Everything, Tuttle, Fix My Street and others, it was a word-of-twitter-mouth, rogue, wind-up unpanel that took over room 12 and brought a bit of classic UK punk to South By. Inflammatory statements – 'the UK does social media way better than the Yanks' – brought delegates swarming from other panels to 'Not Another Social Media Panel'.
The roomful of British social media types broke down in giggles and sniggered as socmed consultants swaggered up to the mic like rock stars. Meanwhile the array of panel members resembling a motley University Challenge line-up were voted on and off the podium at a whim as they cut questioners dead like Paxman on Newsnight.
The people fought back by creating giant titles on their laptop screens and placing them in front of panel members. Names like Twat and Twat2.0 appeared as others came up and edited the screens.
Within minutes seats filled up as the room hashtagged the kebab stoopidity all over twitter. By the end of play, the audience had doubled in size – attracting a sudden rash of Americans into the 99% British audience who came to defend their country resulting in lines from @paulcarr such as 'The Brits are the caddies to the US's golf club of terror'.
Within an hour the 'Pythonesque' session, as one audience member described it, had become one of the hits of SXSWi – at least for all those who were fed up of endless panels discussing monetisation and marketing buzzwords (see Whuffie below) and polite but blatant plugs masquerading as mic questions.
Questions ranged from 'anything good happened at SXSW that doesn't involve monetisation?' (answer: 'Well, I pulled a girl') to tweets such as:
Bandrew: Topic: What does Birmingham do better than Silicon Valley? #sxsw #kebab
LouiseCampbell: UKv's US #kebab the UK are always playing ketchup.
oodleday: "how do we monetize waterboarding" OMG I love this panel #kebab
katiemoffat: "not a twitter user"?! Stone him #sxsw #kebab
dougald: #kebab panel: "If Twitter had been around on 9/11, it wouldn't have happened." #sxsw
ChrisUnitt: Has the BBC and C4 raised the bra for public service media in the UK? #kebab
stewarttownsend: Girls Arse Feck #kebab the panelof experts…….live now..
Suddenly, hashtag kebab was a trending topic on Twitter.
Part two ran again the next day, with questions such as 'can Twitter stop Hitlers?' but the crowd were not as wound up and ready for blood as the day before. Still, look out for a spontaneous Brit unpanel next year as the Brit geeks let off steam.
Here's a flavour of the live event, courtesy of @chrisunitt.
The language of the internet is lagging behind the tech and culture changes… which is presumably why 'whuffie' has been picked from a sci-fi story from the creator of Boing Boing in which currency is not money but reputation, connections, influence, access to resources and to more connections, favours and reciprocity, accomplishement, levels of trust, etc.
Whuffie was the basis of a talk by Tara Hunt, who helped make BarCamp a phenomenon. Here's her SlideShare of the Making Whuffie concept:
You create your own 'whuffie' over time through online networks and the relationships you develop through them. Join Twitter, for example, and it may take some time to build up your 'whuffie' (do I really have to keep saying this word?).
But if you're Britney Spears on Twitter, or similarly connected, then you're said to be 'whuffie-rich'.
Tara outlined some ways to create whuffie for clients – but also for those rawking SXSWi. I followed her advice of, for example, getting drunk at SXSW and mixing outside of my West Midlands/London circle, and indeed created connections with people who are whuffie-rich in social media world.
How my SXSW whuffie-boost works out over the next year will be interesting to see. But already I have an invite to stay in Austin next year with one of the SXSWi MCs and a few whuffie-boosting tweets have gone out to the masses of followers that others have and I don't.
So far, I have a heck of a lot more random people following me. Which is cool, but weird. Apparently whufie ultimately raises up your bottom line. It turns out we're all potentially our own business model now.
I'll let you know.
Interview with the Twitchhiker
It started with a tweet:
Paul Is the guy who has set himself the challenge of travelling to the other side of the world in 30 days for the charity Water – but totally reliant on the goodwill of those on Twitter. Checking the Tweetdeck grapevine at SXSWi, I found that the Twitchhiker had made it to Austin – the kind Twitterfolk of Wichita had decided he needed to get to SXSW.
When I met him he was half way through and scrabbling for a lift to the airport later that day. No lift and he'd break his own 48-hour rule on getting stuck and have to fly home. To make life more difficult, he's not allowed to ask the Twittersphere for what he wants.
Paul look fried. He'd been filmed by both the BBC and Good Morning America so hadn't slept or seen anything of SXSW.
Fortunately, during the interview Austinite lady librarian @hallienoves came through with a ride to the airport and he was on his way again.
He's now on the West Coast, sticking out a virtual thumb to get him somehow across the Pacific Ocean. He's a lovely guy so help him on his way by checking out #twitchhiker and sticking in a donation at the same time.
11:30 AM Blog on Company Time and Get Promoted. Picked up a few tips here but generally the title promised a little more than it delivered. Most interesting was the issue of NOT linking:
Apparently a municipality in California is getting sued for linking to one dry cleaner and not three others in the area. Legal issues surrounding potential favouring of some businesses over others. Solution suggested was to create a little link on site, asking: 'Did we forget your business, should we be linking to you?' and link to another page to give them the opportunity to post up their business that way.
03:30 PM The Future Of Social Networks
This was the big session for me, essentially a talk by Charlene Li, co-author of Groundswell. It's going to take some sinking-in time but it is based on the assumption of social networks becoming like air (not a new idea but…) but interested in the reasons for business resistance to them.
Social networks 'disrupt the traditional info flow' to customers and so businesses will have to integrate them to keep focus on the customer. The biggest reason (possibly) that engagement is being resisted by organisations is that the change in structure represents a huge threat to middle management. What will be their role if their CEO decides to engage in that world? Will they have a role at all? I'm tempted to say, look at what's happening in journalism – the traditional models were resistant to Web2.0 and are now suffering the price of that. Engage and innovate now or potentially risk your job.